Paradox Lost: Toward a Robust Test of the Chinese Learner

Paradox Lost: Toward a Robust Test of the Chinese Learner
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   Education Journal 《 教育學報 》  , Vol. 34, No. 1, Summer 2006 © The Chinese University of Hong Kong 2006    Paradox Lost: Toward a Robust Test of the Chinese Learner Keith MORRISON School of Arts, Letters and Sciences,  Macau Inter-University Institute This article suggests that attempts to date to unravel the paradox of the Chinese learner are incomplete and inadequately modeled, and that the complexities of the paradox have not yet been fittingly operationalized or alternative explanations of research data investigated. It contends that attempts either to state or to unravel the paradox are chimerical, as they risk oversimplifying a complex phenomenon, the extent and nature of which are insufficiently understood to date. The article argues that investigating the phenomenon of Chinese learners’ strong performance in international measures of achievement requires researchers to operate more rigorously in their search for alternative and multiple explanations of results in terms of causality, sampling, and representing heterogeneity. Several explanations of data on the paradox are  presented, and alternative explanations which might be more usefully explored are provided. The article also questions the extent to which research on the Chinese learner, with a search for a unitary set of characteristics, is not, itself, prey to totalizing, collectivist ideologies cast in unrealistic meta-narratives. Recommendations are made for  further research. Introduction The search for characteristics of the Chinese learner and its articulation with elements of the Confucian heritage culture (CHC) has been tenacious, and has also given rise to the “paradox of the Chinese learner” (e.g., Watkins & Biggs, 1996) that is informed, in part, by CHC elements.  2  Keith Morrison   This article suggests that attempts by researchers, commentators, and educationists to date to unravel the paradox of the Chinese learner are incomplete or inadequately modeled. It argues that the complexities of the Chinese learner paradox have not yet been sufficiently addressed, with incomplete operationalization to date. Further, it suggests that attempts either to state or to unravel the paradox are chimerical and full of aporias, as they oversimplify what is, at heart, a highly complex  phenomenon. The article contends that the phenomenon of the Chinese learner exemplifies the need for educational researchers to operate more rigorously and scientifically in their search for alternative and multiple explanations of this phenomenon, rather than to opt for simpler, if seductive, explanations. Explanations to date of such a multilayered  phenomenon, while having the allure of parsimony, risk neglecting the weighing of alternative explanations and, thereby, commit the “straw man” fallacy, i.e., setting up an explanation and then seeking only data to support that explanation. Social scientists have a duty to seek alternative explanations. This article suggests several such explanations for the paradox of the Chinese learner. Celebrated and important attempts to unravel the paradox of the Chinese learner are well documented. 1  However, it is argued here that these represent partial accounts of the paradox and its solution or dissolution. It is important for educationists to ensure that accounts of the paradox and its solution address and judge the several possible explanations available, and put them together to give a multivalent account of the phenomenon, if, indeed, it exists. This article suggests several possible explanations of the phenomenon, and how it might be investigated; there is no single explanation. Further, while suggesting that meta-analyses or research syntheses of empirical research studies might be an important step forward, the article also questions the relevance and utility, let alone the  practicality, of conducting research on so disparate and heterogeneous a  population as “the Chinese,” and questions whether the search for a unitary set of characteristics is not, itself, prey to totalizing, collectivist ideologies that seek high-sounding, inclusive but questionable meta-narratives.  Paradox Lost: Toward a Robust Test of the Chinese Learner 3   Chinese Students’ Performance on International Measures of Educational Achievement The paradox of the Chinese learner is intriguing for Westerners and Chinese alike. In a nutshell, it questions why, despite using rote learning, memorization, repetition, constant testing, large classes, competitive motivation, examination orientation, authoritarian and didactic teaching and learning methods, passivity and compliance — in short the presence of putative negative features of teaching and learning, together with a supposed absence of many positive features of effective teaching and learning, Chinese students consistently achieve more highly than their Western counterparts, who are highly adaptive, prefer high-level, meaning-based learning strategies, and engage in deep learning. Briefly, a researcher’s task in exploring this phenomenon is to account for: (1) why Chinese learners do so well on (international) tests of achievement; (2) the nature and extent of the pedagogical strategies that have been adduced as part of the phenomenon of the Chinese learner; (3) the relationship between (1) and (2). As will be argued here, these are  problematic. The evidence of achievement is clear: Stevenson et al. (1990) report superior achievement by Chinese students in comparison to American students. Brand (1987) reports that the average mathematics score of Asian Americans, at 518, was 43 points higher than the general average, and that, over a six-year period, 20 Asian American students out of 70 were scholarship winners in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He reports that 20% of all engineering students at the University of Washington were of Asian descent, with the figure at Berkeley being 40%; at Harvard nearly 14% of students were Asian Americans, and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology the figure was 20%. In the liberal arts, New York’s Julliard School comprised a student body of 25% Asian and Asian Americans. Stigler and Perry (1990) indicate that, in a test of mathematics, the highest-scoring American students outperformed only one of the twenty classes in Taipei from the first grade upwards, and this applied to all  branches of mathematical reasoning. Stevenson et al. (1990) report that Chinese students obtained significantly higher scores in mathematics and reading than did their American counterparts. Cai (1995) found that Chinese students scored considerably higher than U.S. students in computation and simple problem solving in mathematics. S. Lau (1996), Bond (1996), and Wong and Wong (2002) summarize much research to  4  Keith Morrison   indicate the outstanding performance of Asian students, particularly in mathematics, in comparison to students from other nations and cultures. S. Y. Lee (1998) reports that students in Taipei, Sendai, and Beijing massively outperformed Chicago students in mathematics at grades 1 and 5, a difference of over 30% at grade 1 and 45% at grade 5, and that Beijing students scored highest compared to students in Taipei, Sendai, and Minneapolis in arithmetic and algebra at grade 4 (pp. 48–49). Comparative data often come in the form of international studies of educational achievement. (How far these fairly represent what happens in the rest of the students’ lives and learning is a moot point, but it is not addressed in this article.) For example: the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement in 1980 found that, for mathematics, the performance of the top 5% of American students matched that of the top 50% of Japanese students (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 31). Hong Kong twelfth-grade students in 1987 had mean algebra scores of nearly 80 points, whereas for American students it was 40 points; for elementary functions/calculus, the Hong Kong students scored 60 points, compared to the 30 points scored by their American counterparts. Students in Taipei consistently outperformed students in Minneapolis and Chicago at first-grade and fifth-grade levels for mathematics in 1980 and 1987 (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 35). Hong Kong students gained the highest scores in the second International Study of Educational Achievement in mathematics (Robitaille & Garden, 1989). China topped the list for the 1992 International Assessment of Education Progress (Lapointe, Mead, & Askew, 1992). The 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) places Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan above the United States in mathematics and science. The 2003 TIMMS study presents a very clear picture (see Table 1). The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study reports that, for 2003, in mathematics, students from Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Macao, overall were in the top six of the forty countries taking part, with Hong Kong first, far ahead of the United States (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2004). Students from Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Macao were in the top six in respect of “space and shape” and in the top thirteen in respect of “change and relationships”; students from Korea, Hong Kong, and Macao were in the top four in respect of “quantity” and in the top five for the area of “uncertainty,” i.e., all the four areas of mathematics tested.  Paradox Lost: Toward a Robust Test of the Chinese Learner 5   Table 1: Results of the 2003 TIMMS study Position Country ScorePositionCountry Score Mathematics: 4 th -grade students Science: 4 th -grade students 1 Singapore 594 1 Singapore 565 2 Hong Kong 575 2 Chinese Taipei551 3 Japan 565 3 Japan 543 4 Chinese Taipei564 4 Hong Kong 542 10 England 531 5 England 540 12 United States 518 6 United States 536 16 Australia 459 11 Australia 521 Mathematics: 8 th -grade students Science: 8 th -grade students 1 Singapore 605 1 Singapore 578 2 Korea 589 2 Chinese Taipei571 3 Hong Kong 586 3 Korea 558 4 Chinese Taipei585 4 Hong Kong 556 5 Japan 570 5 Japan 552 15 Australia 505 9 United States 527 15 United States 504 9 Australia 527 Source: Mullis, Martin, and Foy (2003), pp. 16–17.  Though here is not the place to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of such studies, nevertheless they indicate neatly high levels of this kind of achievement by East Asian students. However, this article unravels some difficulties in providing explanations of Chinese learners and their achievements in such studies; indeed, it suggests that the supposed paradox is not as paradoxical as it appears (see also Dahlin & Watkins, 2000, p. 67), and that attempts to unravel it to date can be characterized by a neglect of consideration of a range of possible explanations. This article puts forward ten such explanations (social, cultural,  pedagogical, curricular, economic) of why Chinese students may do well in international tests of achievement and, in doing so, suggests the need for researchers to seek robustness by examining all possible explanations of this phenomenon and, thereby, to operate Popper’s (2002) principle of falsifiability as the touchstone of rigorous science in this field.
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